Unminimalist Edtech: An At-Home Teaching Setup
It is an irony, not lost on me, that on many days I teach with a setup at home that is, here in our zoom-y times, by no measure minimalist. Little and lot are in the eye of the beholder I might protest; but really, it's a fair amount of “stuff.”
I'm always curious as to what others have done to set up their space at home for remote teaching, or what schools have done to set up hybrid teaching stations and the like. It's a task which I think deserves more credit and appreciation, as it is not trivial to try to create an at-home media production studio. (It is also not cheap, for individuals or for schools that might reimburse equipment in some way.) In the case of a lot of industries, I expect that they'll get back to the office and not worry too much about those home setups for a bit. But in the case of teaching and teachers, I wonder whether some of the home setups may persist, if only as a way to record bits and pieces and more instructional content, even when the immediate need to teach remotely is not so pressing.
I have, like many, had the occasion (opportunity? excuse? necessity?) to update (develop? change?) my setup quite a bit over the past year. I've been teaching online in one form or another since this time last year with the longest break between classes being 3 weeks in the summer. So let's call that as close to continuously teaching online for a full year as I will ever get. I had done plenty of recording for classes for years. Lots of self-recorded video content or audio content, plenty of slide decks, etc. But working so much remotely in a lot of different classes (rather than just my regular “online” class one term per year) directed my attention to a series of things that I used to be ok with having “good enough.” So, here follows some lessons learned, some random bits of gear nerding, and some thoughts after a year or so of teaching from in front of my bookcases.
Webcam audio does some strange things. So too do Zoom and various video conferencing platforms. While everyone has, I think, seen or is at least aware of the benefits of headphones, I have gone full recording studio in my classes. Big chunky headset so that I know I'm not the one causing feedback and so that I can have the best chance of hearing students when their connection isn't great. Ipads are the worst feedback offenders, and I'm not entirely sure why that is. Possibly placement of mic and speaker, but I strongly suspect that something in the software causes part of that feedback effect.
A key bit of my setup is something which I imagine most people don't use: a separate sound controller. I dabble in music in a prosumer sort of way, so I had purchased an external sound unit for my computer years ago. Things like the Scarlett FocusRite are most popular for this, particularly at a sub $200 price point. I use a Yamaha AG-06, which has a great feature for teaching where you can switch the loopback switch to have anything playing on your computer sound through the line in again. That is particularly useful for zoom or podcasting, as I can show video clips and just flip that switch to make sure students hear it but then don't have to go hunting in menus to click off the sound for my computer again. (It's really not that much hunting, but I suppose I just like the physical switch and physical knobs for everything.) I like to feel like I've got a little mixing board there too. Affectation maybe, but it's also fairly functional. These kinds of units start at around $150 and then up from there depending on the exact features and brand.
Microphone: I have a cheap (~$30 – $40) non-usb mic that is probably 80% of the sound quality of the low end of what might be a “good” podcasting mic (~$200+), but it is still a large improvement over the webcam microphone. (It is, more specifically, a cardiod condenser microphone, xlr connection so you need an audio interface; it will not plug directly into the computer. The same basic model is sold under a variety of brand names on amazon.)
The AG-06 has some equalization and effects built in; and if you're using Windows you can use the software that comes with it to select a sound profile (e.g. voice vs. instrument) that makes everything sound very good. It isn't essential. I tried some processing plugins and they work fine too, though if you don't have enough computing power and haven't offloaded enough video tasks to the GPU then you'll find the video and audio will show a slight lag when you use it for Zoom or the like.
If there is one single thing that makes the difference it is using a DSLR instead of a webcam. I already had an older DSLR camera, so I bought a relatively affordable (~$25) power cord to use in place of the camera battery and I have it on an old tripod. I tried various webcams, both old and new; I tried multiple webcams for multiple angles; but now it's the old semi-retired Canon DSLR by itself that seems like it was worth the effort. Glorious depth of field and, moreover, something that I can manually turn on and off. (Plus you'll notice when that lens cap is off.) This is not cheap if you were to go out looking to buy new gear, but if you have a DSLR camera already, using it to do streaming video, like the video bloggers and youtubers do, does help your video stand out and look far better when teaching on zoom.
I have on occasion fed everything through OBS studio. This is a layer of complication and requires a fair amount of tweaking, but it allows for some useful effects. At the very least, students tend to sit up and pay attention a bit more upon seeing that I'm going to be switching views and showing them different kinds of screens and angles. It also makes it easy to switch with a hotkey to a view of a book or document I might want to show.
For those who don't tend to think in hotkeys, it is of course one more thing to manage in terms of your own attention. (So, no, not particularly minimalist.)
For a while I used another webcam, simply facing downward. I recently tried out a CZUR book scanner that doubles as a document camera for presentations. I'll admit that it is pretty useful, though really what you're buying is the software. The camera is basically a webcam on a fancy stand. The software works well on Windows, with all the bells and whistles. In Linux it is an overpriced webcam, but it's sufficient in a pinch. It's just that if I'm doing anything extensively with it then I should probably be in Windows for that.
(And, yes, let me state the obvious: the minimalist solution here is simply to hold up a piece of paper or hold a book or a picture. That works in most situations and I've done a fair amount of that too.)
To Green Screen or Not to Green Screen
I tried a bit with green screens. The lighting is terrible where I am, so short of doing a full setup of that somewhere else, it didn't work out all that well. It's the layer on top of doing just OBS, to then be able to present with the images layered in the background. So, without sharing my screen in Zoom, I could present students something more than just a talking head. A huge advantage of this was to be able to walk around as I might in a classroom, but that required the camera fairly far away and out of reach. In the end though, not really worth the hassle.
One of the big downsides is that the rendering of this into something like Zoom does degrade considerably. I tend to use a presentation platform that can be viewed in real time by students, so they can see the presentation in a separate tab on their browser rather than use the videoconferencing screenshare. (You can do this sort of live view with Powerpoint of course, but also with (slides.com)[https://slides.com] online or many others; you can also simply share a copy of the slides at the beginning of class so that students can open it on their own machine in better and more reliable resolution.) But if you don't have the presentation available in any form other than as fed through video conferencing software, then the added overhead of this kind of processing will likely overshadow the benefits of any kind of green screen setup.
I've tried doing classes via Zoom from all over my house, including from various outside locations with natural light. Some places get good light, others not so much. I tried with some repurposed shop lights from the garage. Eventually I got some dimmable LED stand lights that are surprisingly versatile. The last issue was the overhead recessed lighting in my house. I struggled with that for a while, as there was no way I could avoid having this massive bright light illuminating my forehead and the top of my head until I realized that there was fairly simple solution. I removed that bulb and magically the lighting worked perfectly and everything was balanced again.
I will confess to having gone further recently— maybe vanity, maybe just that I needed a bit more control and didn't like the idea of having to put the light bulb back in after teaching. A “smart bulb” with bluetooth is the current functional solution. I dim it to the right level and color temperature for class and then can set bring the light back up so that I'm not working in the dark once I'm done.
I rarely teach sitting down. One of the key bits of Zoom fatigue is feeling like we can't move or have to stare at the screen. So I teach standing up. For a while I just used books and such to raise the monitors and webcam. Now, with the DSLR on a tripod and the monitors on an adjustable desk riser, it is a bit more pro I supppose.
Multiple — at least 2. Or a large repurposed TV will work for one of them.
Complexity in practical terms
A key bit of all this is that this sort of setup may well fail. So I tend to have some redundancies. For example, my regular old webcam is still plugged in and ready to go. If I'm using OBS (which I tend to use sparingly) I can kill it at any time and switch to the most direct webcam to zoom and use just that. I've usually got links to documents. I have slides stored for students to access outside of zoom, etc.
Complexity in philosophical terms
As I said, this is a decidedly unminimalist setup. It requires a lot of infrastructure and a non-zero cost. If I had purchased everything from nothing it would be about $1000 worth of equipment. As it is I paid out at least a few hundred dollars that I would not have spent otherwise. I had a lot of this equipment already, which is a luxury. But I suppose that's my point in detailing this. To get clear audio and video requires a non-trivial amount of equipment and investment of time, energy, and real dollars. And even with that effort there are whims of the connections or a passing storm.
I'm a little annoyed with myself that I've invested this time in tweaking things. In practice it makes it simpler day to day and, what interests me more, the result is generally clearer more reliable audio and video that the students get to see and that gets recorded. I know that I'm putting the best quality I can into the pipeline. I suppose for all of these adjustments that differ from what might be considered the standard and basic setup of laptop with a webcam pointed at someone's face while sitting at a desk, what I've been trying to do is provide the clearest and most high resolution signal I can provide to students.
The result of all this is the familiar rule of technologies. Getting something to look clean and simple requires significant labor and technology. I don't think that it looks on the other end like I am using all sorts of technology or that there was a particular amount of labor involved, in part because of the ubiquity of youtubers and podcasters who do have fairly slick production.
One of the under-appreciated aspects of more widespread online teaching is that it has made the juxtaposition of online classrooms and various non-classroom modes unavoidable. Without significant expenditures of time and money, that's an arms race that teachers can't win and, moreover, one that we shouldn't really be forced to fight.
More generally, what does it really mean to be simple or “minimalist”? Is it on my end, in the production? Or in how students perceive it?
Or, as I am willing to admit, this is one area where I have gone totally overboard and taken a decidedly unminimalist approach.
p.s. on Linux
Since I work primarily on Linux, I would be remiss if I did not note that there are some tweaks required in order to get everything working well on Linux. But without going into that in detail, the easiest thing is to use Ubuntu Studio or, if using some official flavor of Ubuntu, to add the Ubuntu studio additions to your setup. The low latency kernel and the various JACK controls and utilities solve a lot of potential problems that you may run into otherwise, particularly with Linux audio. DSLR cameras have utilities for Windows or mac that make streaming easier; there's a bit of v4l2loopback and commandlinefu on Linux in order to get that streaming going.